Kathleen Coyle, S.S.C.
Unmoved by the advice of her timid sister Ismeme, Antigone replied:
Now I go, to pile
the burial-mound for him, my dearest brother.
When Creon reminded her “you knew the order not to do this thing?” she replied:
“Nor did I think your orders were so strong
That you a mortal man, could over-run
The gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws.”
The poem goes on to explain that her self-sufficiency has brought her down and led her to “break bounds beyond established law.” The king faithful to his word announced: “No woman rules me while I live.” And he commanded the guards:
Greek tragedy illuminates the truth of our human condition in a way which refuses to ignore the controlling forces of history. This paper is concerned with those who because of their religious commitment and convictions, question orders that try to “could over-run the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws,” those who “break bounds beyond established law” and those who choose to live “a buried life.”
The birth of the most recent feminist movement with the publication of Betty Friedman’s The Feminist Mystique in 1963 coincided in time with the Second Vatican Council. While there is no clear connection between Friedman’s ideas and the deliberations then going on in Rome, the results of both events have converged both to reflect and create some very fundamental changes in gender relations. In church life many roles have been opened up to women from which they had hitherto been excluded. However, such new possibilities only made evident how much of the old exclusions continued.
Robert Schreiter writes that church life has been largely reflective of the tensions around gender relations in the culture, but it has also been an active participant in creating those tensions and, to a less extent, in trying to address them.3 Sandra Schneider’s remarks that the repressive treatment of women was never based on scripture any more than the practice of slavery, which was also defended for centuries by reference to biblical texts. On the contrary she states that the quenching of the Spirit and Its gifts is plainly contrary to the New Testament message (see 1Thess 5:19-22; 1 Cor 12:7).
Our claim as theologians is that the rising concern for and of women must come from the contemplation of the gospel and from the conviction that to be a disciple is to absorb the teaching of Jesus into a lifestyle. To be a disciple is to give our energized response to the gospel and awaken people to the mystery of their lives, to the divinity within them.
Feminism, an emerging worldview that began as a whisper and has risen to a great prophetic cry, tries to define and shape itself so that people may live more justly and creatively with one another. As a comprehensive ideology rooted in women’s experience of oppression it moves beyond the struggle for civil and human rights and promotes the vision to transform all domination/submission relationships into one of mutuality. As a comprehensive theoretical system it evaluates and critiques ideas, social structures, indeed the whole of experienced reality. But it is more than a theoretical system. It offers the proposal of an alternative vision and commitment to bringing that vision to socio-political realization.4 It creates new paradigms of understanding and provides a cultural backdrop for all economic and political structures.
Peter Phan describes theology as a system of meanings, historically transmitted, culturally conditioned, institutionalized to a certain extent, embodied in myths, symbols and rituals, critically self-reflective, and formulated in terms understandable to the people of a certain place and time.5 Its task is a critical and imaginative mediation between Christian faith and human culture, for it both shapes and is shaped by the concrete experience and cultural activity of the people in any given time. If theology is to give an intellectually responsible account of Christian faith it must be in conversation with feminism. This demands that it begin with an ethical sense of outrage as it critiques the long Christian tradition that has systematically excluded women, or denied or impeded their autonomy as human beings and as Christians. But first let us look at what we mean by patriarchy.
An critical analysis makes clear that patriarchy is not the domination of individual women by individual men. It is rather a paradigm of social organization which is based not on maleness as such but on the social role assumed by or assigned to adult male household heads in the structure. An intrinsic connection is therefore established between maleness, property and power on the one hand, and femaleness, economic dependence and powerlessness on the other.
In a patriarchal culture men are defined as the norm and women are defined as naturally inferior. What is often thought to be “natural” for men and women is often culturally determined. Simplistic gender stereotypes such as male aggressiveness and female passivity result from treating the two instincts as separate entities, as if one could retain its identity without the other. Passivity, thus, becomes a negative quality. When we accept such character ideals in our lives we reinforce patriarchal values.
It is difficult to talk about gender difference in a non-hierarchical way because we have no language to talk about difference other than as opposites. Any affirmation of difference means opposition and hierarchical relations of power and value. We have no way of saying that men and women are different, that they possess a fully and equivalent nature, that neither is better or worse, normative or deficient. The term “complementary” is sometimes used but complementarity can still be understood as built on opposites. This assumes two halves of a whole in which each half has what the other lacks. This falsifies the vast similarity of men and women as humans and does not allow for traits of creative passivity in men or assertiveness in women. Inappropriate aggressiveness befits neither. Militarism stems from male supremacy and the politics of domination-submission are so closely bound to the violence of militarism. It is the one system which, until recently, had never been openly challenged in recorded history.
Feminism understands patriarchy to be an essentially dysfunctional system, and embraces an alternative vision for humanity and the earth, actively seeking to bring this vision to realization.6 Rosemary Ruether calls it a massive historical crime.7 Its doctrines have been so universally accepted that they seem to be the laws of nature. Gerda Lerner comments that the major patriarchal idea systems which explain and order Western civilization “incorporated a set of unstated assumptions about gender, which powerfully affected the development of history and of human thought.”8 For a working definition, feminism is the critique of patriarchy in its sociological, literary psychological, linguistic, political, and religious-mythic-symbolic manifestations.
While feminist discourse continues to use the term ‘patriarchy’ in the sense of gender dualism, scholars like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza in her more recent writings prefer the term ‘kyriarchy.’9 By kyriarchy she means the rule of the emperor/master/lord/father/husband over his subordinates and the ideologies that validate and are sustained by kyriarchal relations of domination.10 Kyriarchal power operates not only along the axis of gender but also along those of race, class, culture and religion. It is not only androcentric but master-centered. Such kyriarchal politics of submission were not invented by Christian theology but were first articulated in the context of the Greek city-state and mediated by Greco-Roman philosophy,
Fundamentally, dualism is the radical splitting apart of things that essentially belong together. Division and difference are more important than similarity and relationship. Differences are understood as polarities or opposites, and opposites, in turn, are understood hierarchically, as a relationship of dominance and subordination.
Western religious and social thought are deeply dualistic. Under the impact of late Hellenistic philosophy and culture, the early church was deeply influenced by dualism. The ultimate dualisms of this system are spirit and matter, good and evil, eternal being and nothingness. The other dualisms in the series--male and female, soul and body, reason and emotion, mastery and slavery, clerical and lay, technology and nature--follow from these initial polarities in a logical or at least understandable sequence.
Distinctions of gender, race and class also are seen in the context of this pattern of hierarchical relations of power and value. One group is seen as the dominant group possessing fullness of normative humanness; the other is defined as subordinate, deficient in humanness. One side is closer to spirit, mind, God; the other is close to the body, irrationality, passion and evil. A negative Christian theology of the physical and its outworking in body-despising attitudes and practices are anchored in a mind-body dualism that parallels the cosmic dualism between God and the world. The early church’s preoccupation with Greek thought led theologians like Origen, Jerome and Augustine to define the doctrine of creation in early Platonic categories and developed their anthropological understanding along lines which drew too strong a contrast between the material and the spiritual.
Central doctrines of creation, incarnation and salvation require a very different conceptualizing of personhood and sexuality. When bodies of ideas are looked at over time from different--often unsympathetic--viewpoints, dramatic shifts in the representation of these can occur. However, one must recognize that any oppression which has resulted historically in these mistakes is unfortunate and should not be judged too harshly.11
For more than a decade the analysis of parallel dualisms and their theological and human inadequacies have been widely available, yet in many respects they have made very little impact on Christian theology or practice. In analyzing the dualistic divisions that separate people, the goal is to deconstruct the crippling definitions of sexual identity to which society would have women conform.12 It must also examine the consequences of such dualisms and see beyond them. Adrienne Rich comments that in rejecting dualism, “we affirm the existence of all those who have through the centuries been negatively defined: not only women but the ‘untouchable,’ the ‘unmanly,’ . . . ‘the illiterate’: the invisible.”13
Ancient myths identifying woman with evil, matter, darkness and sin have clear echoes in Christian interpretations of concupiscence where the body is defiled, sexuality is contaminating, and woman is a threat and a danger. The image of woman has been echoed again in such recent liturgical practices as the churching of women. The early Christian insights into women's equality in the grace of baptism that (“if anyone is in Christ s/he is a new creation” [2 Cor 5:17]) soon became obscured in our tradition. Theology, therefore, needs to look at a tradition that identified the fullness of the image of God with male persons and evil with woman. In such tradition, woman had to be redeemed either by marriage and procreation or by virginity, by which she was virginally freed from her body in transcending her own sexuality. This tradition, based on a misunderstood biology and deeply ingrained in our psyche, is still supported by theology.
The Judeo-Christian tradition is deeply patriarchal, not only in its institutional organization but in its theology of God. Monotheism is not necessarily patriarchal, but in the Hebrew scriptures, it is often difficult to find the God of compassion and justice behind the vindictive characteristics assigned to Yahweh in some parts of the scriptures.
In the early church, election to ministry was by the community, not by appointment. However, ecclesiastical practice has derived from the early church’s period of institutionalization (60C-100 CE), a period of what seems to be the severe curtailing of the role and ministry of women. In the institutionalization of the ekklesia (a term used in Athens for the assembly of male citizens entitled to vote), ministries probably became so ritualized and ecclesial energy and vision deflected into structures and systems. Its most visible forms are its authority and sacramental systems that reach the community through hierarchical channels.
We must keep in mind that people are not timeless, disembodied, isolated minds but embodied beings with their histories and cultures, who therefore can only think from the particularity of their own perspectives with all their in-built biases. Classical theology has not been aware of its own ideological bias, created by and supportive of a patriarchal society. Theologians through the centuries were either clerics or monks. They were captives of the viewpoint of their culture, and reflected the religious interests of their particular social class.
Certain themes just could not make their way into the conscious horizon of traditional theology. It is understandable; therefore, that theological thought and symbols would have been shaped by the bias and perspective of clerics and monks. This has resulted in intellectual mistakes with unfortunate effects but without evil intent. In secular society, issues such as how men will cope with the novelty of the authority of women are studied, but in spite of recent church documents about equality there is still subtle ecclesiastical blocking. The church too must learn that answers will have to come through sharing, not monologue, conversation rather than encyclical pronouncements.
We pass the night in each other’s shadow
We are awakened by the light of dawn
As if someone has called us by our true name.14
Feminist theologians are concerned with shadows in the long night of patriarchy and the dawn of theological awakening by which together, as church, we hope to be called by our true name. The major world religions have arisen after the so-called patriarchal revolution, and consequently, it is within this ideological framework that all religions treat the role of women in society. The Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians at their 1981 Conference claim that all religions validate violence against women:
Pointing to alternative ways of viewing the world, feminists appeal to experience as incontestable evidence and give the lie to dominant viewpoints. What is needed is not cosmetic changes in the existing structures, but a fundamental change in the structures themselves and a whole revisioning of the church’s theology along holistic rather than dualistic lines. There is evidence that our creativity is expressing itself beyond the boundaries defined by patriarchy. Human consciousness is expressing itself in protest against aggression and division in movements that are profoundly feminine: the peace movement, the ecological movement and movements towards holistic spirituality. Leonard Cohen expresses it well in a few poetic lines:
We continue to ring a few bells while we peek through and chip away at the cracks! The church must find a way to abandon rigidity without abandoning the values it embodies, for change is urgently needed in such visible, audible areas as vocabulary, ministry, liturgy and authority. That may be the key challenge of the twenty-first century. We move, as Rich says, between thresholds, “breaking down the barriers and boundaries between hidebound, conventional classifications that restrict our ability to imagine -- and therefore to empathize with -- those different from ourselves.”16 In a much-quoted passage on re-visioning, she writes:
Feminist scholars have produced an enormous body of writing that is by no means monolithic. In the last thirty years, the volume of research and writing about feminist theology has demonstrated both breadth and depth in the issues it takes on and studies in feminist biblical scholarship, feminist spirituality and feminist ethics. The research in these fields has so increased that it is difficult to stay current in any or all of these fields. Living in a social world characterized by patriarchy and a religious tradition whose theological questions and answers have been provided almost exclusively by men, Christian women who live on the margins of this theological heritage are sensitized to be suspicious of answers that do not resonate with their own faith experience. If theology continues to engage the whole church in self-criticism, then feminist theology has the task of engendering ecclesial self-criticism, not just of the church’s androcentrism but also of its historical patriarchal structures.
When Christian feminists critique the symbols, myths and thought-forms of the Christian tradition, they do so because these serve to maintain the social world of hierarchy. The inequality of women has been institutionalized by religious legislation and supported by theological argument and pastoral practice. Women are asking how they have become identified with sin, and what forces are at work in the deep ambivalence of Christianity towards them?
The interpretation of the Genesis 3 myth is a case in point here. Apart from the early chapters of Genesis there is no further mention of Eve in the Hebrew bible until she reappears in the book of Ecclesiasticus, written in the second century BCE. The author, Ben Sira, states bluntly: “From a woman was the beginning of sin, and because of her all died.” (Sir 25:24). Eve, the mother of the living in Genesis, becomes the mother of death. Anne Primavesi comments:
The connection made by Ben Sira between sin, death and woman has been so accepted into Christian consciousness that it has been assumed that as God did not want her to eat (sin), neither did God want her to die. It was her own fault that she did both.18
This interpretation is repeated in 1 Tim 2:8ff: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Literal interpretations of the Genesis 3 myth which treated this story as history, combined it with the idea of the “fall” in Greek literature and confused it with an Augustinian interpretation of original sin. This has done enormous harm to Christian piety. Connecting Eve with sin and death is a foundational historical mistake, no doubt without evil intent, but with disastrous consequences for Christian theology and spirituality. Rosemary R. Ruether states, “women were created second, sinned first and are to keep silent in the church.”19 As a result, Mary became the great exception, exalted at Eve’s expense and of all other women. Donal Flanagan spells out the consequences of singling out Mary as the New Eve:
A price had to be paid for this singling out and the price was the identifying of all other women with the first Eve, as fickle, unreliable, morally inferior beings in their natural condition. This dichotomization ... did not begin with Christianity. Rather the Christian marian tradition in due time produced its own dichotomization in Eve/Mary terms. This allowed the Christian male to project all his respect, honor, love onto one ideal, other-worldly woman, Mary, and thereby to salve his conscience for the actual subjection and low estate he allowed to real women in his patriarchal male-dominated world.20
In addressing women, Tertullian asks them: “Do you realize that you are each an Eve?”21 In writing to Lucinus about Theodora Jerome says: “You have with you one who was once your partner in the flesh, but is now your partner in the spirit, once your wife but now your sister, once a woman but now a man, once an inferior but now an equal.”22 Jerome is quoted here, not that his writings were original but that it was his writings that were read so widely, his opinions that were quoted and repeated throughout the succeeding centuries. He could accept women with their asceticism and saintliness, as being no longer women but men.
Such insights from the patristic era continue in an endless wave across the whole of the Latin Middle Ages down to our own time. Scholasticism continued this warped view of female sexuality. The work of the inquisitors and witch-hunters could be legitimated by such beliefs. Whatever may have been the factors that led to the breakdown of Western Society in the Middle Ages, the witch, like the Jew, became the scapegoat for all the ills of society. The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) written by two Dominicans in 1486 links witchcraft to an inferior perception of women’s nature:
Since women are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come under the spell of witchcraft. For as regards intellect, or the understanding of spiritual things, they seem to be of a different nature to men . . . It should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.23
Contemporary exegetes invite us to a careful rereading of the creation narratives. Phyllis Trible, for one, explains the word “Adham” to be a generic term for humankind, one creature incorporating two sexes, referring back to Genesis 1:27, “male and female he created them.”24. Both sexes are created by God; both are equal in grace and responsibility, in sin and shame. Carol Meyers offers a translation of Gen 3:17 to read, not as “I will greatly increase birth pangs at childbirth” but “I will increase your toil and pregnancies,”25 a hint at the population increase needed for the labor-intensive nature of ancient Israel’s agricultural economy. In the same reference Susan Niditch26 sees the woman in the story as the curious one, the seeker of knowledge, the culture bringer, gaining knowledge of good and evil. While tradition has emphasized sin as disobedience and has traced that disobedience back to Eve, Niditch reminds us that the word “sin” does not appear in the narrative. It only enters the story with the destruction of life, the killing of Abel by Cain.
We need a comprehensive analysis both of the development of the patriarchal/kyriarchal paradigm for over twenty centuries of Christian history and of every aspect of theology: the canon of scripture, the arguments of classical theology as well as classical theological method. We also need to study the complex processes by which bodies of ideas have vanished, not so much by being deliberately suppressed but by being trivialized, misrepresented and excluded from the canon of what is deemed good, great or significant. We are now aware that part of Christian history and experience --specifically the experience and contribution of women--has either been overlooked or silenced in the course of the development of the tradition. The rediscovered books of Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich remind us of the treasures of spirituality that have lain hidden for centuries, while the works of Ignatius Loyola and Thomas Kempis were widely read.
Recent papal documents like Mulieris Dignitatem offer distressing examples of an unhealthy romanticizing of womanhood as motherhood (without a corresponding affirmation of fatherhood), while denying women their dignity as baptized Christians. And what is one to say of Inter Insigniores (On the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood), which interprets Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (4:4) to support its position that women are prohibited from the official function of teaching? Such an interpretation denies the universality of the incarnation and salvation.
Hans Urs von Baltazar complained that the church has, to a large extent “put off its mystical characteristics; it has become a church of permanent conversations, organizations, advisory commissions, congresses, synods . . . structures and restructurings, sociological experiments, statistics, that is to say, more than ever a male church, if perhaps one should not say a sexless entity.”27 Again he adds: “In this masculine world, all that we have is one ideology replacing another, everything becomes polemical, critical, bitter, humorless, and ultimately boring, and people in their masses run away from the church.”28
More than half a century ago, Teilhard de Chardin complained that the church was “drifting in a backwater of abstract theology and confined to a little artificial world of ritualism, of religious practices, of pious extravagancies.”29 At different times in Christian history there has been a danger of heresy, at other times it was syncretism. These are real and permanent risks for authentic faith, but the greatest risk facing Christian theology today is not that it will become corrupted but that it will simply become irrelevant, that it will drift again on the backwaters of abstract theology.
If the church’s patriarchal structure and function is a distortion of the gospel, then Christian feminists have an enormous and exhausting task on their hands: the radical transformation of the church. During the past thirty years they have begun to challenge the hierarchical character of the western religious tradition. Evangelii Nuntiandi #19 stresses that the preaching of the gospel must affect and upset any values, attitudes or ideas which are in contrast to the word of God and the plan of salvation. Women and men are bonding together and speaking their anger as they refuse to be imprisoned in the ideological grooves that institutionalized religion has created for them. In a century that began with a condemnation of Modernism and concludes with the Apostolic Letter Ad Tuendam Fidem (To Defend the Faith) the feminizing of the church will hopefully offer a crucial corrective as women bring the riches, the experience, the influence of the Christian feminine into the life of the future church, up into its decision-making and life-giving systems.
Spirituality is the experience of consciously striving to integrate one’s life in terms of self-transcendence towards the ultimate value one perceives. Christian spirituality strives for transcendence through participation in the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ. For the Christian, the holy mystery of God is revealed in Jesus and experienced through the gift of the Spirit within the life of the church.
The traditional language of spirituality for arriving at the undivided love of God has been masculine: steps, ladders, categories, stages and blueprints. Given the way in which the tradition has presented the trinitarian God as three male “persons,” as well as the recent emphasis on the theological significance of the maleness of Jesus in Inter Insigniores,30 and on the structure of the church as hierarchical within which women, on the basis of their sex, are excluded from participation, it is not surprising that once their consciousness has been raised, they have problems with traditional Christian spirituality. They are asking: what resources are there in Christianity for their encouragement and empowering?
For Christian feminists, Jesus is central to their faith life which is trinitarian and communal, and their ministry is an integral expression of their spiritual lives. Madonna Kolbenschlag31 identifies four characteristics of feminist spirituality: passion, an energy to move us onward; imagination which finds its home in liturgy, symbols and the language of worship; resistance, a refusal to accept unquestioningly doctrines, definitions and moral norms that deny women their right to name the truth of their experience; solidarity, a desire for bonding which includes critical reflection, deliberate choice and a commitment to gospel living.
Other salient characteristics of feminist spirituality are the following: its rootedness in women’s experience; its deep concern with the reintegration of all that has been dichotomized in patriarchal religion; its profound concern with the non-human; its rejection of the cerebral, rationalistic and abstract approaches to religious participation; and its commitment to the intrinsic relationship between personal transformation and a politics of social justice.32 Feminist men and women hope to reclaim the reality and power designated by the term “Spirit” and the effort to reintegrate spirit and body, heaven and earth, culture and nature, eternity and time--all these dichotomies whose root is the split between spirit and body and whose primary incarnation is the split between male and female.33
Elizabeth Johnson in her recent book Friends of God and Prophets reminds us that the Spirit is the energy of relation, boundlessly vivifying, outpouring and healing the community.34 The Spirit, the wellspring of creativity that leads to risk-taking for the gospel, even in the face of injustice and death, shapes our very being into a sacrament of the presence of God. Feminist spirituality then emphasizes the body as the locus of divine likeness and the right of women to participate in the shaping of religion and culture. In an otherwise hilariously irreverent poem, “At Jacob’s Well,” the author offers us the woman of Samaria as a model of contemplation:
She shifts her ground to high theology.
Where’s the right place to get in touch in God?
Jerusalem or here? The answer’s odd:
Wherever breath to breath breathes honestly.35
The question of women, as such, was not a conscious concern of any of the New Testament writings. Its message was addressed to people as either actual or potential believers regardless of sex, family background, economic status or political affiliations and concerned with making God’s compassion a reality in their lives. The distinctive character of the message of Jesus was the experience of the Reign of God already present both in signs and wonders and in sharing meals together, breaking down the divisions in Jewish society between the “pure” and the “impure”. Such divisions marginalized many classes of people. First of all, they marginalized all women within the Jewish people itself as being of secondary status in relation to both temple holiness and rabbinic study, by their very nature as women. For centuries, unfaithfulness to Yahweh was expressed by the metaphor “playing the harlot” (Lev 20:6).
Jewish laws divided Jew from Gentile and marginalized the sick, the lame, the blind, the deformed, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, servants, swineherders, seamen and peddlers of fruit and garlic.36 The joyful good news of Jesus’ message was that these separations had been overcome in the over-flowing graciousness of God. All these hopeless ones, including prostitutes, the bent over, the widows and those possessed by demons had not only received healing and forgiveness but gathered in a joyful banquet in which, by sharing their small provisions, twelve baskets were required to gather up all the crumbs.37
The Kingdom of God was never just about words and ideas, parables, sayings and dialogues. It was about a way of life. And that means it was about bodies of flesh and blood. The mystery of the incarnation reminds us that God takes life and bodies and flesh seriously. Dominic Crossan reminds us, “justice is always about bodies and lives, not about words and ideas.”38 Justice is about being called by our true name. He writes:
There is then only one Jesus, the embodied
Galilean who lived a life of divine justice in an
unjust world, who was officially and legally
executed by the world’s accredited
representatives, and whose continued
empowering presence indicates for believers that
God is not on the side of injustice - even (or
especially) imperial injustice. There is only one
Jesus.. . who incarnated the Jewish God of justice
for a believing community committed to
continuing such incarnation ever afterwards.39
As we said at the beginning of the paper, our claim as theologians is that the rising concern for women must come from the contemplation of the gospel and from the conviction that to be a disciple of Jesus is to absorb his teaching into a lifestyle. From a study of Bernard Lonergan’s thought we know that intellectual conversion is going to demand of men and women a new kind of listening if we are to eliminate “the exceedingly stubborn and misleading myth concerning reality; objectivity and human knowledge.”40 Moral conversion is going to demand a new kind of responsibility, if we are to uncover and root out our biases (including gender biases) and opt for the truly good.41 Religious conversion is going to demand that we take seriously that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” because God’s love continues to flood our hearts through the Holy Spirit.42 Such conversions are needed if we are not to live “a buried life” in “a hollow cave” and if in the spirit of the woman at Jacob’s Well breath to breath (will) breathe honestly. Then together we can be called by our true name and the triune God can live ecstatically through all of us.